Librarians Find Themselves Caught Between Journal Pirates and Publishers

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Librarians Find Themselves Caught Between Journal Pirates and Publishers

Courtesy Carolyn C. Gardner Carolyn Gardner, a librarian at the U. of Southern California, says of tension between librarians and publishers: “We are probably both their biggest consumer of the materials they sell as well as their biggest critics.” T he rise, fall, and resurfacing of a popular piracy website for scholarly-journal articles, Sci-Hub, has highlighted tensions between academic librarians and scholarly publishers. Academics are increasingly turning to websites like Sci-Hub to view subscriber-only articles that they cannot obtain at their college or that they need more quickly than interlibrary loan can provide. That trend puts librarians in an awkward position. While many are proponents of open access and understand the challenges scholars face in gaining access to information, they are also bound by their contracts with publishers, which obligate them to crack down on pirates. And while few, if any, librarians openly endorse piracy, many believe that the scholarly-publishing system is broken. The New Education Landscape The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning project provides stories and analysis about this change moment for learning. Sign up for our weekly newsletter Join the discussion on Facebook Listen to the podcast (coming soon) Carolyn C. Gardner is one librarian who says the system needs an overhaul. Ms. Gardner, an information-literacy and educational-technology librarian at the University of Southern California, said that, as an advocate of open access but a patron of the paywall model, she feels an internal tension. While librarians push publishers to rethink costly paywall methods, they also depend on the service of such journals. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning project provides stories and analysis about this change moment for learning. “We are probably both their biggest consumer of the materials they sell as well as their biggest critics,” she says. Sci-Hub, which advocates for free access to academic scientific research, was developed in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a graduate student in Kazakhstan. Last year her website was successfully sued by the publishing giant Elsevier. A U.S. district court in New York ordered the site to shut down and cease pirating material. While sci-hub.org did shut down, sci-hub.io soon sprung up in its place. In a 2015 letter to the court, Ms. Elbakyan explained that, as a student abroad, she didn’t have access to many scholarly articles she needed for her research, and she discovered that neither did many others in developing countries. “Payment of 32 dollars is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them,” she wrote, citing the per-article fee charged by many publishers. “Here anyone who needs research paper, but cannot pay for it, could place a request and other members who can obtain the paper will send it for free by email. I could obtain any paper by pirating it.” She added that she had developed the website to process such requests automatically. As reported in The Atlantic, when users of the website type in an article they are seeking, the service uses a college or university’s login credentials to piggyback off its access to subscription-only journals. A PDF is then delivered to the user, and a copy is saved to Sci-Hub’s database to satisfy future requests. Of course, the service is based on the procuring of those credentials, which an academic library may have paid hundreds or thousands of dollars in subscription fees to obtain. But according to Ms. Elbakyan, it is the publishers who are acting unethically, not Sci-Hub, because they charge for work created free by academics. In a 2015 interview with Torrent Freak, an online publication about copyright and file sharing, she said, “We have to win over Elsevier and other publishers and show that what these commercial companies are doing is fundamentally wrong.” Ms. Gardner recently set out to research what motivates scholars to use pirate sites to obtain journal articles. In a survey whose results will be published this month in an open-access journal, Ms. Gardner and her husband, Gabriel J. Gardner, asked about 200 scholars who used alternative methods to view journal articles why they had done so. While a majority said they had used interlibrary loan, even more said they had turned to a section of the anonymous website Reddit, r/scholar, to ask other Internet users to send them the files they sought. About half of the survey participants said they had used a piracy website such as Sci-Hub or LibGen, and about 20 percent said they had made requests on Twitter using the hashtag #icanhazPDF. Many scholars said they saw those methods as equivalent to a colleague’s dropping off a PDF on their desk. “They said they wouldn’t have access any other way. ‘I just need access. I don’t really care how,’” she says. “Also many cited tha…
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On February 18, 2016
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